Introductions: Dissection of body and soul

By definition, medicine must bridge the most vexing dichotomies and paradoxes of our modern world: life and death, suffering and healing, spirit and body, science and faith.

Medical school is mostly boring and the parts that are not are often tragic, which is why few people write about the experience.  Prospects facing newly-minted residents and attendings are not much better, as the overwhelming secularization of a discipline once seen as divine has fueled financial exploitation, divisive politics, and increasing frustration, cynicism, and disillusionment in those who once sought something more meaningful.  While there have been exponential gains in scientific understanding and treatment achievement, changes in “medical ethics”, malpractice, and medical culture have also surpassed the average healthcare provider’s ability to make meaningful and humble sense of the world.  As a result, not only has healthcare lost much of its posterity, austerity, and integrity in our post-post-modern culture, but it has coerced Christians into a defensive and embattled posture, in which they feel it is all they can do to simply be Christian and a physician, much less a Christian physician.

However, Edmund Pellegrino, founder of modern medical ethics and a Christian himself, once said, “Medicine is the most humane of sciences, the most empiric of arts, and the most scientific of humanities.”*  By definition, medicine must bridge the most vexing dichotomies and paradoxes of our modern world: life and death, suffering and healing, spirit and body, science and faith.  If it is to be of any value, it must make the transition from “benchwork to bedside,” across ever-widening socioeconomic gaps, and from sorrow to joy.

In short, the new nature of Redemptive Healthcare must be willing to and capable of adopting an innovative stance, again bridging seemingly disparate and conflicting forces with the counter-intuitive truth of the Gospel: that Jesus Christ, who was in very nature God, became a man and humbled himself to death, even death on the cross. . . . and that through that death we have forgiveness, healing, and resurrection.

In anticipation of the Lenten season and Easter, I would like to share a series of reflections on death and resurrection as played out in my journey through medical school and residency.  The first of these begins with a reflection given at my medical school’s Anatomy Lab Memorial Service, where medical students gather annually to humbly thank the friends and families of the cadavers who donated their bodies to the dissection lab.  I hope it resonates with those of you who have struggled to find some human connection to the theoretical work that takes place in your own laboratories, offices, and centers for learning and Gospel.

A Reflection on the Anatomy Lab.  Orig­i­nally deliv­ered March 1, 2007.

In prepar­ing for this reflec­tion, there were many sen­sa­tions that came to mind: the dry­ness of dread in my mouth on that first day of lab, the sharp snap of latex gloves, the lin­ger­ing smell of dis­in­fec­tant on my hands, the gritty knot in my stom­ach unrav­el­ing after my first day of dissection. I remem­bered the over­whelm­ing and unnamed emo­tions asso­ci­ated with those days in lab: the won­der and revul­sion of hold­ing a human heart with no life or a brain with no mind, the anger and sad­ness of hav­ing to employ the tool of detach­ment for the pro­fes­sional busi­ness of learn­ing. Since then, I have been look­ing for some sort of clo­sure, a tan­gi­ble action or sym­bol to serve as a ref­er­ence point for the com­ing day when I will once again be con­fronted with the para­dox of pro­fes­sional compassion.

That search for clo­sure took me back to a par­tic­u­lar Sat­ur­day night that found me alone in the lab. Under­stand­ably so; few peo­ple enjoy spending their week­end nights in an anatomy lab. But some­times lab­o­ra­to­ries are our spe­cial sanc­tu­ar­ies: a place where we can find our­selves alone with the silence of our thoughts, our obser­va­tions, and the pro­found pres­ence of some­thing that is both famil­iar and yet so far removed from our com­pre­hen­sion that it might as well be holy.

As I was con­cen­trat­ing on the dis­sec­tion, my hand brushed passed the cadaver’s hand. I paused momen­tar­ily and won­dered how it was that only a month ago the thought of hold­ing a cadaver’s hand sent chills down my spine. I won­dered how my heart had come to treat the cadaver with an ami­able detach­ment. It brought to mind a reflec­tion writ­ten years ago by a friend when she first began med­ical school:

Hands that once held a teacup.

Hands that once held a teacup. Hands that once grasped a pen. Hands that once cra­dled the hand of a lover, pat­ted the head of a grand­child, shook the hand of a friend. Where had those hands been? Whom did they once belong to? Is there a wife, a son, a daugh­ter, a friend some­where who yet mourns the loss of life in those hands?

I had this odd desire to cry in the mid­dle of the anatomy lab, to grieve for some­one I didn’t even know. As my human­ity flooded back into me, I began to think about the friends and fam­ily whose hands I can’t wait to grasp again. Life… well, it is here today, gone tomor­row. Next time you shake someone’s hand, think of what a bless­ing it is to be able to do so… and of the Grace that sus­tains each and every one of us, giv­ing us life and love and the hope of an eter­nity together in peace.

Hes­i­tat­ing, I reached out and held the cadaver’s hand. I held her hand, casu­ally and leisurely let­ting myself warm up to the sen­ti­ment that it used to be human. . . . was still human in so many ways. I thought about the friends and fam­ily that this woman – once filled with age and mem­o­ries — held onto in her dying days.

I felt priv­i­leged to enter into such blind inti­macy, but I also felt vis­cer­ally dis­turbed, as if the body gifted to me had some­how reached out and into my own soul. I real­ized that it was the first dead body I had ever seen, and it didn’t seem to be much of a body at all.

But in the quiet moment of this reflect­ing, I can­not help but real­ize that it was not only a cadaver; not just another lab­o­ra­tory spec­i­men. It was a gift, a daugh­ter, a mys­tery, a lover, a bun­dle of nerves and mus­cles, a house of mem­o­ries. I look at my own hands with won­der. I see its own creases, etched by years of hold­ing on and let­ting go. In the words of John Keats:

This liv­ing hand, now warm and capa­ble of earnest grasping,

would, if it were cold and in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dream­ing nights

That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And thou be conscience-calmed – see here it is –

I hold it towards you.

I held a human’s hand that night. . . . and let it go. It has since become my ref­er­ence point. See, here is my own, its pur­pose yet unful­filled. It too is some­thing famil­iar and for­eign: my own para­dox of human­ity. Grasp it and leave it as you wish; I hold it out towards you.

I held a human’s hand that night. . . . and let it go. It has since become my ref­er­ence point.

*Pellegrino, Edmund D. The Philosophy of Medicine Reborn. Ed. H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. 6. Print.

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David graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and received his medical degree from Rutgers - Robert Wood Johnson Medical School with a Masters in Public Health concentrated in health systems and policy. He completed a dual residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware. He continues to work in Delaware as a dual Med-Peds hospitalist. Faith-wise, he is decid­edly Christian, and regarding everything else he will gladly talk your ear off about health policy, the inner city, gadgets, and why Disney’s Frozen is actually a terrible movie.

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One Comment

    Rachel commented on February 8, 2013 Reply

    Thank you, David. I had never thought of the medical profession this way, and your reflection on the anatomy lab was profoundly moving.

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